TIFF13: Hateship Loveship (2013) and Labor Day (2013)

On Saturday at TIFF, I saw two unusual love stories, but what’s perhaps more unusual is that I ended up preferring the one not directed by Jason Reitman.

Liza Johnson’s Hateship Loveship focuses on a handful of characters and carefully develops them. Kristen Wiig plays Johanna Parry, a reclusive caregiver/cleaner, who starts a new job with the elderly Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte) and his teenaged granddaughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld). Sabitha and her friend Edith (Sami Gayle) play a trick on Johanna, leading her along in a fake correspondence that she believes is with Sabitha’s estranged, drug addict father Ken (Guy Pearce). Based on a short story by Canadian author Alice Munro, this is the kind of the story that gently flows in unforeseen directions. I remember thinking halfway through the movie that I was surprised with how things had developed and was still unsure of where they were heading. However, to borrow the analogy of an insightful old lady at my screening, the film (like Munro’s work) moves steadily in an orbit. When we arrive at the end of the film, the controlled movement of the events is apparent, and the arc is satisfying not shocking.

Kristen Wiig’s serious turn has been generating the most attention around the movie. Her comic abilities help her to play the quiet, awkward Johanna, who communicates mostly through restrained looks, pauses in her movements, and sudden, awkward statements. Though understated, there is humour in the film too.

Jason Reitman’s Labor Day is another adaptation, and, like Hateship Loveship, it moves in some odd romantic directions. Young Henry Wheeler (a blank-faced Gattlin Griffith) lives with his depressed, agoraphobic mother, Adele (Kate Winslet). One day on their monthly trip to the superstore, a wounded escaped convict (Josh Brolin) forces them to take him home with them, so he can lie low over the Labor Day weekend until he is healed enough to jump a train out of town. The film is part coming-of-age story, part thriller, and part family drama, and it doesn’t quite work. For instance, the gripping immediacy of the opening titles sequence, which includes shots of winding, tree-lined rural roads and tense music, doesn’t meld well with the nostalgic narration of an older Henry (voiced by Tobey Maguire) that comes after. The film’s final minutes, in their sincere effort to achieve reconciliation and the wisdom of hindsight, almost wholly dismantle the incredible tension and interest that had been steadily building.

In the Q and A after the premiere, Reitman said he tried to be as faithful as possible to the novel by Joyce Maynard. I haven’t read the book, but I’m worried that he was too faithful to a mediocre telling. To me, the basic narrative—a mysterious convict holds up with a depressed mother and her boy over a Labor Day weekend—seems better suited to the plain narration and ambiguous meanings of a Hemingway short story, or a Liza Johnson film, than the golden-hours sentimentality of a narrator looking back and evaluating the significance of events. Reitman’s film is too sweet.

Hateship Loveship (USA, 2013)

7 out of 10

Directed by Liza Johnson; screenplay by Mark Poirier based on the short story by Alice Munro; starring Kristen Wiig, Guy Pearce, Nick Nolte, Hailee Steinfeld, Sami Gayle, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Labor Day (USA, 2013)

6 out of 10

Directed by Jason Reitman; screenplay by Jason Reitman based on the novel by Joyce Maynard; starring Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Tobey Maguire, James Van Der Beek, Clark Gregg, and Gattlin Griffith.

Hateship Loveship and Labor Day both play during the Toronto International Film Festival as part of the Special Presentations program.